“Houses are graves for the living”
In Shanghai, where I have lived now for almost three years, I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk. It’s a nice desk – big, glass, littered with papers, notebooks, a camera and other devices – and from it I have an impressive view. I sit on an enclosed balcony, of the kind so common in Shanghai, and look out from the 16th floor on rows of apartment blocks erected side by side, so that they resemble trees in a forest, competing for sun, as well as taller office towers, the city’s made-to-order landmarks. The street below is busy – its noises drift up occasionally, reminding me of Shanghai’s rhythms – and, at night, the sky is a kaleidoscope of tacky lights. There are other lights too, shining out from hundreds of neatly stacked rooms just like my own, where my neighbours – stick figure silhouettes I will probably never meet – live lives as narrowly focused as my own.
When I am at my desk, I am normally at my computer, which I have configured to feed me news of the world outside. Each day, descriptions of atrocities and inanities find their way onto my machine, along with complex predictions of booms and busts. I do my best to understand what I read, but never feel like I have access to more than a small fraction of any story. To find out that an Indian mobile phone company plans to invest $100 million in Niger or that Google is battling Chinese censorship is the same as looking out of my window and seeing only stick figures: people are reduced to outlines, thinly drawn so they don’t distract from the structures around them. And because I experience the bewilderment of so many windows outside my own in the same place as this swift-flowing but essentially shallow stream of information, I connect them. I’m left in a typically postmodern funk: alienated and uncertain, but more than anything frustrated. It is a frustration for which I can think of only one release: travel.
In 2005, at the start of my journey to Shanghai from London, I wrote,
I’m perplexed by the idea of ‘doing’ a place. People describe themselves as having done the Great Wall of China or the Eiffel Tower. Or Paris and Berlin. And even an entire country. The statement confuses me. What was done? You’ve been there, visited the place and its people, certainly. Is its every nuance now apparent? Or was it a task, something to tick off a list?
I’m no less perplexed today. The world might be known – it has been measured and, geographically at least, emptied of mystery – but travel is, I think, still about discovery. Although Claire and I spent nine months in India and moved often, so that by the time we started for China via Nepal we had slept in 32 Indian cities, towns and villages, we didn’t go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Agra’s touts were said to be particularly ferocious – the solution, a train that left Delhi before sunrise and returned before sunset, allowing you to get the Taj Mahal done without being hassled or swindled overmuch, didn’t appeal – but when we eventually decided not to go, it was because we didn’t feel that there was anything left to discover. Pictures of the Taj were in every tourism office in India and on the walls of every hotel. Internet cafés used it as a desktop background on their PCs and we heard the story of its inspiration – Shah Jahan’s great love for Mumtaz Mahal, one of his nine wives – regularly. The Taj was, we were told, a tomb, a “monument to love” and a “teardrop upon the cheek of time”. Built on a platform, its walls, which foreign tourists paid almost 40 times as much as Indians to enter, were inlaid with precious and semi-precious gemstones. It was undeniably beautiful too: pure, feminine, but also intimidating – a building well suited to the memory of a queen. Still, I didn’t want to go to see it, to fight crowds and take photos imitating the hundreds I had already seen. I had made that mistake before in Cairo, where a dying horse and Russian girls in hot pants were a more immediate spectacle than the pyramids, and in Rome, where jostling crowds made the Sistine Chapel mundane.
It is not a laundry list of cities and sites that excites me when, sitting at my desk, I allow my mind to drift to our journey home. It is the idea that I might soon be having a conversation in a place I do not yet know the name of, about a subject I have not yet considered, with a person I would not otherwise meet. It is the thought of being free to follow my feet, of going forward, forward and never back, and the hint of fresh smells in Shanghai’s smog. On the road, each day is unique, and time, normally whittled away by routine, stretches, making it difficult to believe you were the same person just a week ago, when you were in another place.
It is normal, I think, to crave momentum, to want to feel that life is going somewhere. Progress is normally measured on a societal yardstick: in South Africa, or the South Africa I grew up in, the notches are certificates, jobs, cars, houses, wives, husbands, children. There are other, less tangible achievements of course, as well as the satisfaction of being carried along by the progress of a country and the whole human race. But travelling makes all of these irrelevant, because momentum is just a train from here to there, accentuated by the freedom of anonymity, of arriving in a place where you have no past, with only as much baggage as you can comfortably carry on your back.
Iain studied journalism and literature at the University of Cape Town. He co-founded AfricanBoots.com, a website about Sino-African relations, edited the Asian travel portal HolidayFu.com and has written on subjects as diverse as the Indian Ocean’s offshore financial centres and the link between travel and nostalgia. His first book, about the pirates, prostitutes and opium peddlers of old Singapore, was published last year.